Friday, March 5, 2021

What about work or starve?

 A young correspondent posed the following question: 

I was wanting to know your opinion on the “work or starve” argument often made my leftists. ...they’re essentially saying that the exchange between the [worker] and the employer isn’t truly voluntary since if the worker doesn’t have a source of income, they can’t live. What would be your objection to this..?

Essay contest for free-marketers. Here is my shot at it: 

First, someone has to work, or we all starve. So, if it is not going to be you work or you starve, it has to be you work or we send you to Siberia. If we are not actors in a market, we must be slaves to the state. Empirically, the incentive that the more you work the more you get has proved much more productive than appeals to patriotism, community sprit, the common good, or force.

Second, the best worker protection is competition. Many capitalists vying for your services in a free and open market is the best curb on one employer’s attempt to exploit its workers.  A good free marketer is always suspicious of the cronyism and protectionism of both capital and entrenched labor that pervades our economy.

Third, there is little objection to a robust safety net for those who are unfortunate so cannot work. Nobody starves,  not in the US, and not even in Libertarian Nirvana. But people who work harder, who apply their talents creatively in ways that serve their neighbors’ needs, do get to live a little better, to give them incentive to serve us all. 


  1. I don't want to sound dismissive, but it's a silly question as posed. It's a silly question because human being have needs and the only way to satisfy those needs to survive is either to work or rely on another person's labor.

  2. A great short and lucid explication of what no contemporary high school or college student has ever heard.

  3. Just because nobody *literally* starves does not mean that the safety net is currently robust enough to prevent negative health impacts. You're arguing against a strawman when you choose to make the argument exclusively about hunger-related fatalities.

    1. As John said, no one is against a safety net. Howrver, there appears to be an utter refusal to discuss the trade-offs for the safety net, both from the distortionary effects of taxation and disincentive effects from transfers.

    2. "the safety net is currently robust enough". In this sentence "currently" is an interesting choice of words.

      The "safety net" robustness is related to our productivity. If every individual can only produce their own food them all the individuals must "work" to eat.

      When other individuals can produce enough to feed themselves and you, then the "safety net" appears as an alternative to your working (your spouse, your lover, your parents, your siblings, your friends ... can provide you with alternatives to your working).

      The "safety net" (that provides an alternative to "working") has never being bigger than "currently".

      The number of employers and the alternatives of employment has never been bigger than "currently"

      If your only option is to work for an employer you hate or starve, you very likely have wasted a lot of opportunities, made some mistakes, or have had an awful lot of bad luck (or all the three simultaneously).

      The good news is that your probabilities of being in such position have never been lower than “currently” (provided you live in the USA)

    3. The market doesn't do redistribution. It does efficiency. If there's not enough redistribution, the source must lie in government failure, in us, in other words.

    4. @Charlie He's not arguing against a strawman. He is addressing the claim as stated by the person who asked the question.

  4. The worker and the capitalist pig both have to eat. Given the pie they produce together, they find a way to divy it up. If the pig takes too much another pig will come along and provide work for the worker and offer the worker more of the pie leaving the first pig hungry. If we introduce a third party (a commander) that dictates how the pie will be split, the commander given its neither a worker or a pig, will still have to eat leaving less for the capitalist pig and the worker.

  5. The "work or starve" motto goes back to the Jamestown settlement established in 1607 by John Smith of England under a King's charter granted to the Virgina Company of London, England. The story goes as follows,

    "“Work or Starve”
    The colony may well have perished had it not been for the leadership of John Smith. He imposed strict discipline on the colonists. “Work or starve” was his motto, and each colonist was required to spend four hours per day farming." Source: Lumen Learning ( "American History and Civics".

  6. Fantastic explanation. "Someone has to work or we all starve." Incentives matter. Having employers competing for workers matters. [Aren't we all likely paid less than the value of our marginal product?]

  7. Work is a necessary input to organized life. It is a fundamental activity in all life forms. The 2nd Law of thermodynamics governs our everyday activities--absence work, life proceeds inexorably to the dead state (i.e., maximum entropy).

    One can do without working oneself, but only if others do the work for oneself. Thus, a king or a president need not work provided others do the work for him. The beggar does not need to work for his daily bread and shelter provided others work to provide for his minimal needs. In this way the king and the beggar are similar, though at a different scale and style.

    Work is a necessary criterion for admittance to certain religions, chiefly the Reformed Church (Calvinist, or the presbyterian church of old Scotland per John Knox). Work is not a singular characteristic of libertarianism, although individual self-reliance is what distinguishes libertarianism from other political philosophies. It is the doctrine of self-reliance that prompts the libertarian to emphasis work as a measure of self-worth.

    Socialism, on the other hand, is premised on the mobilization of all able-bodied persons to work in the interest of the collective body forming society, though as often as not the performance of work in the collective is coerced rather than voluntary. The nature of work, in the socialist sense, thus is that of the honeybee hive or the ant colony no member of which can exist unless it works, with the exception of the queen who's sole role is to produce the next generation of workers and soldiers.

    To put this into the context of the bee family, one can contrast the solitary bumblebee (an individual sufficient unto itself--the 'libertarian') with the european honeybee (the 'socialist'--a member of a colony of like individuals, each of whom has a distinct role to play and plays it in harmony and coordination with every other member of the hive and has no separate existence outside of the hive or swarm).

    To address your young correspondent's query, his left-leaning interlocutors misapprehend the nature and purpose of work and the condition of employment in a free contracting society which you point out by way of describing work from a libertarian perspective. But they also misapprehend the conditions of work in a socialist utopia, the 'beehive' society, and the proto-capitalist society of the nascent Jamestown Settlement of AD 1607 (cf., John Smith's motto: "Work or starve.")

    Work, it can be said, without fear of contradiction, is a necessary though not a sufficient condition of continued existence. Thus, one can assert that Smith's motto, "work or starve", is an apt and succinct description of the force of the 2nd Law as it applies to all life-forms on Earth.

    1. "Work is not a singular characteristic of libertarianism, although individual self-reliance is what distinguishes libertarianism from other political philosophies. It is the doctrine of self-reliance that prompts the libertarian to emphasis work as a measure of self-worth."

      Thank you. Unfortunately, government finance does not address this. The only choice given to government officials is debt (taxpayers as a collective make the payments).

  8. It depends to what end you are arguing, here. There is, no doubt, some element of coercion in all human relations, because we all have many different types of needs. When there is competition, as you say, the coercion is less. But, so what? No one would dispute that a world in which all of our needs were satisfied with no effort would be better!

    The question thus usually turns to some public policy issue, of labor protections or minimum wage. And then the question is not whether one might starve without work, but whether workers are better off with or without the intervention.

    Indeed, one might turn out around entirely: Without work, people will starve. A minimum wage makes it illegal to employ people with low productivity. Thus a minimum wage consigns many to starvation!

  9. We live in a world where the biggest health problem among poor people is obesity. Worrying about starvation is a luxury good.

    1. You, of course, very subtly noticed, I would not have said better. I agree 100%.

  10. Nice answer. I roughly agree, but...

    1. What if a central bank has an official unemployment rate target of no less than 5%? How about 7%?

    2. What if a worker was born and raised in a First World country, but borders are open for migrants from much poorer countries?

    Another story: You go fishing with a billionaire on his yacht. He falls into the water.

    He cries, "Throw me the liferaft! I am drowning!"

    You say, "That takes effort. If I throw you the liferaft in exchange for $2 million, we will both benefit. Do you agree to pay me $2 million to throw the liferaft?"

    PS. In general I look askance of social welfare programs. But everything possible should be done (well, within reason) to keep labor markets tight, and property markets loose.

    1. Ben,

      I presume by "loose property markets" that you mean that property should be liquid (easily transferrable / transportable).

      Some would say that what gives property its value is that it is somewhat illiquid.

      Imagine if all of us could pick up our houses / homes and park them along a beachfront.

      Would beachfront property have the same appeal or value?

  11. The young correspondent is right: it isn't truly voluntary. But then what is? There is scarcity in our world. Food and shelter aren't free goods. The relevant question is under what form of social organization can we make the most of it.

    Under socialism the exchange is that bureaucrats appointed by politicians decide for who you can work and what you receive in exchange. Under capitalism you get to choose. Neither is truly voluntary, but under the latter it is more voluntary than under the former because you get to pick and not the bureaucrat. What do you want?

  12. The claim is that the exchange "is not truly voluntary", and the argument is that "the worker needs income to live."

    To refute it -- hell, to even make sense of it -- first one needs to define "voluntary." Of course, modern physics (modern meaning the last 200 years) pretty definitively shows there is no free will beyond the movement of atoms. "Voluntary" becomes difficult to define.

    Let's steer clear of those waters. Instead, I want to focus on the idea that the worker "needs income in order to survive." While true, this claim does not directly imply anything about the welfare of the worker in the labor market. To see this, note that we all need food to survive and yet we do not believe that this makes our decision to go to restaurants not "voluntary" or, more to the point, harm our welfare. The key fact in both examples is, of course, competition.

    This is econ 101.

  13. This question ("workers would face starvation if discharged from employment; thus unequal 'power' to receive a part of production") is misplaced. First, it sets up false alternatives. Only in the "lifeboat" situation of Jamestown would this approach a real choice for a discharged worker. The traditional remedy is mobility: move to find opportunity, over the hill is greener grass, etc.
    The fuzzy-minded social justice types simply cannot think past their "good intentions."

  14. The far left view is that work can be voluntary, only if completely disconnected from the wage system. Their utopia is one in which national income is distributed in a manner disconnected from work, as advocated by Marx. The problem with that view is that exchange of work for wages is voluntary. Why oppose voluntary exchange? The less extreme view is one in which subsistence income is provided to everyone, independent of work. Milton Friedman's negative income tax proposal resembles that view, while retaining relevant incentives.

  15. "Work isn't truly voluntary under our or anybody's economic system. Work is what other people want done". I hope that is a fair extrapolation of Cochrane's reply to the young correspondent. I have to agree.

    Missing from Cochrane's reply, however, is marginal thinking. How to move the ball a couple of yards to the left or to the right. That's really where all the fireworks and controversies lie, isn't it?

    Can we build a society that is more fair, without killing the golden goose? Can we move the ball two yards to the left? A centrist liberal wants to know.

    1. JZ,

      "Can we build a society that is more fair, without killing the golden goose? Can we move the ball two yards to the left? A centrist liberal wants to know."

      Yes we can. But first we must be able to separate a government's financing decision from it's spending decision.

      With bonds, a government spends twice, once on the initial purchase and a second time on the interest payments.

      With equity, a government spends once on the initial purchase.

  16. There is a simpler answer: When we eat to avoid starvation or breath to avoid asphyxiation this is called voluntary. Voluntary means that we are making a decision based on the options available to us.

    Without this definition, than voluntary labor is not a sustainable ideal.

  17. I like your answer, but would have made it shorter. Maybe something like (editing your text as little as possible):

    "Someone has to work, or we all starve. Many capitalists vying for your services in a free and open market is the least painful way to solve for this harsh reality. History has shown that alternatives based upon appeals to patriotism, community sprit, the common good, or force usually end up being much worse for the worker class."

    The way I might have answered (which I like less than yours, but sharing for what it's worth) is:

    "Someone must rule, and that 'someone' will always be a King, Dictator, War Lord, Priests, Aristocrats or Oligarchs. History shows the best result for the 'common man' is when power is split between several of these groups. But if forced to pick just one, you definitely want the Oligarchs. Yes they will force you to 'work or starve,' which truly is terrible, but still far superior to the 'work or whip' options the other groups generally employ.

    Most will object that the choices above are too narrow/pessimistic but, sadly, knowledge of history tends to make one a pessimist. The well-meaning populists (of both the political left and right) who object most strongly to this will inevitably be suckered into handing power to a charismatic Dictator, should they gain enough traction to obtain power."

  18. One serious problem with the safety net in this country is that it is structured to discourage low-income people from getting ahead. People who earn less than $100,000 face effective marginal tax rates greater than 100%, and enormous marriage penalties. For example, Section 8 housing caps rent at 30% of income - so a $1000 raise means an automatic $300 rent increase. Adding the 7.65% employee-side payroll tax, the 10% bottom Federal bracket, the food stamp formula, the energy subsidy, and the Obamacare rates (which were recently increased), you're over 100% - and that doesn't count discounts to low-income people for transit passes, parking, park admission, school tuition subsidies and admissions preferences, etc etc - as well as free marijuana in Berkeley.

    If you get married, you might get kicked out of your apartment, lose your Medicaid coverage, and more. If you have kids, you lose your favorable single-head-of-household status.

    "Progressive" politicians keep piling on income-tested benefits. A cynic might suggest they are engaging in "electorate shaping" as explained in "The Curley Effect" by Andrei Shleifer and Edward Glaeser.

    Well over half of government spending goes to the safety net. That some people are lacking proves how stupendously incompetent government is in this area.

  19. Work or starve? Is the employer a monopsonist, the only buyer of labor? If not the worker has other options for work. What happens if a laborer working for a single employer becomes incapacitated and can no longer work. Would the employer hire the next worker who might otherwise starve?

  20. Income also comes from savings/ownership, and not from work. It seems that this is overlooked in the discussion.

    1. Those savings and ownership came from the past exercise of the liberty to retain earnings in excess of what was needed for immediate subsistence, and use it to generate wealth for yourself by participation in markets and enterprises. And that participation often comes as investment into someone else's labor as they seek to implement a new idea or new location or new refinement in an effort to generate wealth for themselves by doing something useful and valuable to others.

      "And this is the great truth that socialists lose sight of — Capital is nothing but old labor. Capital is nothing but the fruits of the earth which have been already gathered, preserved, or transformed; that is, manufactured by past labor.”

      --Socialism; a speech delivered in Faneuil hall, February 7th, 1903, by Frederic J. Stimson

  21. From Wikipedia, elaboration on a quote I recalled from my youth:

    According to Vladimir Lenin, "He who does not work shall not eat" is a necessary principle under socialism, the preliminary phase of the evolution towards communist society. The phrase appears in his 1917 work, The State and Revolution. Through this slogan Lenin explains that in socialist states only productive individuals could be allowed access to the articles of consumption.

    The principle was enunciated in the Russian Constitution of 1918, and also article twelve of the 1936 Soviet Constitution:

    In the USSR work is a duty and a matter of honor for every able-bodied citizen, in accordance with the principle: "He who does not work, neither shall he eat".

  22. Work or starve is not a question. It's the human condition. Would we rather live in a system of specialization and voluntary exchange or? Or what? Leftists simply don't know or don't care about history. In early ancient Greece you: built your own dwelling, grew your own crops, raised your own animals, made your own wine, spun your own fabric, made your own clothes, dug your own well, made your own furniture, carts, barrels etc. Now, that was WORK! And you worked to survive.

  23. The Commons: U.S. Labor Shortage? Unlikely. Here's Why, Heidi Shierholz, May 4th, 2021, at (hosted at Columbia University) addresses the plaint that there is a labor shortage today and that the additional unemployment benefits provided in 2020 and again in 2021 are partly to blame. She writes that this reasoning is entirely incorrect. Her contention is that employers often are unwilling to pay a wage rate that would attract the workers it needs. She notes that employers will specify skill requirements in a job posting that excessively narrow the breadth of qualified candidates and offer a wage rate for the position that further limits the supply of candidates in the hope of obtaining a highly qualified new hire at a low cost. This assessment accords with my own experience in the labor force, and it is consistent with the high demand for H1B1 visas by U.S. tech employers.

    She dismisses entirely the suggestion that the shortage of candidates for job openings is the result of the additional pandemic-related unemployment benefits.

    To find the article, search on the author's name or on the article title.


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